COVID-19 changed education in America — permanently (part 3-conclusion)

October 7, 2021

It’s been a school year like no other. Here’s what we learned.

Lesson 4 – College admissions will never be the same

Thank the pandemic for piercing the invincibility of standardized college entrance exams, namely the SAT and the ACT, which for decades have been a mandatory part of applying to a selective college, despite evidence that they disadvantage minority and low-income students. But with test dates canceled because of COVID-19 and no easy way to administer them remotely, hundreds of colleges allowed students to apply this year without submitting scores from one of these tests. There was already momentum in this direction before the pandemic, but now it will be difficult to go back.

In a survey by ACT, most colleges said they were unlikely to return to requiring the tests in the next few years. Soon, after the traditional May 1 deadline to accept an offer from a selective college, colleges will learn whether eliminating the testing mandate means they will be enrolling a more racially and economically diverse class of freshmen. And then over time, colleges will be able to see how students admitted without test scores do compared to those who submitted theirs.

There are reasons to think that they may find that those students do just as well. That’s what happened at Wake Forest University, a highly selective private college in North Carolina, which has been test-optional since 2008.

This doesn’t mean that top colleges will be radically more equitable in the fall, given how many Black and Latino and other low-income young people are putting off college plans to work and help their families. The flood of thousands of extra applications to the most exclusive colleges doesn’t exactly help anyone’s chances of getting in, especially when the vast majority of colleges have only committed to being “test-optional” rather than “test-blind,” meaning they are still willing to look at test scores for those who do submit them.

Some experts in the field also say that de-emphasizing standardized testing is only a first step towards a more equitable college admissions system. While in theory relying more on letters of recommendation and personal essays in place of test scores seems like a good thing — one that would force admissions officers to consider students more as individuals — it’s not clear how much this will even the playing field, said Don Yu, chief operating officer of Reach Higher, a college access initiative founded by former first lady Michelle Obama.

For instance, implicit racial bias can seep into teacher recommendations, and wealthy students can pay to get extra help with their college essays. The Stanford Faculty Senate recently voted to ask the university to require applicants to list the names of people who read their application, and detail their connection to those people.

“Especially for low-income, minority, first-generation college students, that one decision at this early point in a young adult’s life is a high-stakes decision, something that may even break generational poverty,” Yu said. Yet despite those stakes, he said, the selection process is “very unscientific.”

Lesson 5 – Education needs massive reinvestment

It’s tempting to think of the annual, or biennial, ritual of wrangling over a state budget as political theater, to think that advocates will always claim the sky is falling, that money comes and goes and it doesn’t make much difference. The pandemic has proved otherwise.

The 2008 financial crisis began a long slide in funding for public education that didn’t fully reverse when the economy recovered; as of 2016, 24 states were still spending less on education per-student than before the Great Recession, and schools had 77,000 fewer teachers and other staff while enrolling 1.5 million more children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Public higher education was receiving $3.4 billion a year less in 2019 than in 2008, while shifting costs heavily towards tuition. The result is that COVID-19 hit an education system significantly weakened compared to a decade earlier.

One result, as the Government Accountability Office found last year, was that in nearly 4 in 10 of America’s school districts, at least half of the school buildings needed updated or new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Needless to say, that has not helped get kids back into classrooms in the face of an airborne virus. (It wasn’t helping before COVID-19 either; research has tied air quality to improved academic performance.)

Most educators agree that tapping the full potential of Americans to live healthy lives and contribute to a better economy will take a full-throttled reinvestment in education. Biden’s budget blueprint proposes boosting education funding for next year by nearly $30 billion.

Just as with efforts to close the digital divide, creative ideas are emerging to help students overcome financial hurdles and boost opportunity over the long term. Three former education secretaries, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., have all endorsed the idea of a national tutoring corps, which would not only help kids but provide tutors with community service experience and stipends. Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides online learning materials, has a new project called to connect students to vetted, volunteer tutors. A bipartisan, prospective ballot initiative in Colorado seeks to give every low-income family up to $1,500 to pay for tutoring or other enrichment opportunities.

Another idea that got a boost from the pandemic was emergency grants — short-term, small-dollar awards to college students to help them weather a financial hit instead of dropping out. They were suddenly tested at a massive scale when colleges were required to spend half of their funding from the CARES Act on emergency grants. Signs suggest that they have helped college students overcome short-term crises. Last fall, staff at Amarillo College, a community college in Texas known for its work with students in poverty, called over 2,000 students whom they were helping with CARES Act funding. Some were experiencing homelessness, some were months behind on rent and utilities. Cara Crowley, vice president of strategic initiatives, made a couple hundred of those calls herself. Despite everything they were dealing with, 76 percent of those CARES Act recipients made it through to the spring semester — about the same as the general campus population.

“I would have bet surefire money they wouldn’t have stayed in school when you talked to them,” she said. “Because their need was so overwhelming.”

The fact that a sizable portion of college students face obstacles like eviction and hunger is a reminder that the education system can’t be expected to solve every problem in society. Schools would have an easier time if students’ families didn’t struggle with low incomes, unstable housing or a lack of health care, all problems that can greatly affect learning.

Of course, plenty of educators, parents and advocates have known this for decades; the same can be said for many of these pandemic lessons.

But the epic crisis triggered by COVID-19 has forced the country to begin to do something about gaps in our education system that have been hiding in plain sight, and that acceleration of effort could mean a better educated America down the road.

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